From the Top
Bela Fleck prepares for a performance on From the Top.
When I was a little kid, maybe four or five, I heard the Beverly Hillbillies on television, and I had one of those moments when time stops. I didn't know what it was, but it was like quicksilver or mercury in my head, every note sort of hitting some weird place in there. It took me a long time before I actually got a banjo, but from that moment on I was conscious of that sound.
I grew up in New York City and went to the High School of Music and Art, which was kind of like the Fame school. Literally the day before I started high school, my grandfather gave me a banjo because at that time there was a movie out called Deliverance and a song called "Dueling Banjos," which made the banjo suddenly a very popular instrument again in the United States, which it hadn't been for a good while.
I got into the school playing "Here Comes the Sun," which I could finger-pick on guitar, and they said, 'OK, we'll put you on a real instrument.' So they put me on French horn, which didn't work out too well. The first thing I was told was to work on playing an F, and I could never get it. I could never make a sound out of the instrument. Eventually they moved me into the chorus because they needed tenors. If I were a vocalist I'd really be a baritone so I wound up screaming my way through high school. Meanwhile, [outside of school] I was putting in hours and hours a day playing the banjo, and that was really exciting for me.
I loved the Beatles. They continually grew, and I thought that was what you did if you were a musician and artist, you constantly looked for new things to do. I was a kid in the sixties, and all of our heroes were musicians, whether it was the Beatles or later on it was Frank Zappa. Ravi Shankar got really popular there for a while, too. Having an incredible musical experience was something to be really excited about, and eventually I started going to hear people play. I got to hear Chick Corea and Return to Forever play at the Beacon Theater, and that just twisted my brain because when I watched those guys play their instruments, I realized that all the notes they were playing were on the banjo, too — I just had to find them and figure out a way to play that repertoire on the banjo. So that's what I set out to do.
I also had a great teacher who was the most modern banjo player at that time, a guy named Tony Trishka, and a lot of what I got came from watching him. What he did was very inspiring.